Chapter 1

Drake Pearson eased his 1981 Ford truck into the driveway of his shabby trailer home, careful to keep it from rocking wildly across the yard every time his tires hit holes. Stupid dogs. A shotgun would take care of that. New tires were a killer to afford, so better the mutts disappear than his sanity.

Linhurst Peak, Missouri, was all heat by the time May rolled around. Dirt concreted to a hard crust, wild roses and dogwoods bloomed prematurely, parents drowned their kids in Gatorade and sunscreen, and even the local Scrooges were desperately singing “Let it Snow” by the time Christmas rolled around. Of course, it wasn’t all that bad if you could afford air conditioning, which Drake’s old man couldn’t.
Along with the heat, everything else in life pretty much went along routinely. Drake went to school, avoided home when at all possible, slept long hours just to find peace in blackness, and endured the ugliness of life in cruise control. No, he wasn’t calling it quits altogether. He just hadn’t found an alternative to living yet.

Drake steered to the right and braked in a patch of dead, twisted weeds, half-noticing that the clunker his dad owned was gone. Again. He pulled his keys from the ignition and sat there, thinking only for the pure sake of the silence it brought. He pressed his head back against the sweat-stained headrest and closed his eyes. Welcome home, man. Last on the list of places I want to be right now.

The smell of cut grass filled Drake’s nostrils as he stepped out of his truck and walked up to the front door. Another downpour last night had left the rickety porch saturated with water. He was certain that one day he’d come home and find it disintegrated from rotting. Then again, if the porch ever did collapse, there wouldn’t be much of a fall. All the empty cigarette cartons and beer cans piled high underneath would surely bolster the four-foot drop. Drake really didn’t care what happened either way. He even made a point to hit the steps harder and listen to them crack with every step he took, if only to give his dad something else to cuss about once he got home.

Drake kicked the neighbor’s stray cat away from the screen door and grabbed the doorknob, finding it unlocked as usual. A thousand thoughts flashed through his mind. After tomorrow, he would be forever done with twelfth grade. That meant the real sting was on the way—get a job and do something useful with your life, punk. Yeah, if only he knew what that meant. While his dad was gone and his head cleared from exams, he determined he would spend the rest of the afternoon sorting out what he might dare call his future.

He bit his lip and shrugged. Ah, save it for another day.

Another blast of scorching heat blanketed him as he walked inside. Drake took off his shirt and flung it over the side of the couch. Might as well get a full tan in this furnace of a house. He went to the freezer and scattered the last handful of crinkle-cut fries on a rusted cooking sheet. Maybe the oven would work long enough to at least thaw them out.

Drake stared down at the food, starving for more to eat. He had to get a job. This wasn’t life. It was poverty. Something had to give soon. Everything was lacking in his life. He wanted more, needed more. Something to drive him on and give his life purpose.
He combed through his shaggy black hair with his fingers and sighed. Maybe someday things would be different. But not now. Now was just too far away and confusing.

Andrew Tavner moved the dial on the iron to low and slowly pressed his best slacks. Stress made his right hand tremble and his heart beat furiously within him. Only two more hours of this edginess, and then he would hear the judge’s verdict on the case he had so long been fighting. Almost a year had passed…had it really been that long?

Andrew quickly lifted the iron and made sure he hadn’t burned his pants. Yes, it had been almost a year since he had decided to take his own brother to court. What he hadn’t known was that the battle would continue to this day. So many sleepless nights, so many court hearings, so much pain. Somehow, in light of it all, he had not allowed himself to grow weary. At least he was doing something about it, even if some family relationships had to die in the process. This was all about the kid now. Only when the courts handed the child over to his care could he finally set his mind at ease.

After knotting his tie a little tight, Andrew adjusted his collar with shaky hands and briskly combed through his graying hair once more. God, help me, he prayed, unable to maintain eye contact with the sad, red-veined eyes looking back at him in the mirror. You know how much Ronnie means to me. You know I’ll always take care of him and do everything I can to get him into church.

He wasn’t trying to bribe God by telling Him he would take the kid to church; but it was a reputable argument, and he meant every word of it. Besides, just getting the child out of foster care was a good enough reason to win this case. His attorney wasn’t the greatest in the world, but then again, he didn’t have to be. Anyone with eyes could see that the kid desperately needed a better home.

Drake was tense as he walked to his last class the next morning. Something about the word “test results” made his mind go into overload and fear the worst—another year of high school. He had a lot on the line and wasn’t sure yet if he could handle seeing anything lower than a D on his paper.

Drake found his seat near the back and sat down, hands jittery and ankles crossed so no one would see them shake. It felt as if this room were ten degrees hotter than any of the others as the teacher reached for the papers on his desk and began passing them out, starting with the front and ending in the back. Drake tapped his fingers nervously against his desk as the teacher approached him and laid down his exam.

Drake slowly lowered his stiff neck until his eyes fell on the page below him. His mouth nearly fell open.
A beautiful, scrawled C-. The breath rushed from his lungs as his entire body trembled with relief. I passed. I can’t believe it. I really passed.

“Is that you, Drake?” a voice hollered from the bathroom.

“No, it’s a robber!” Drake shouted back, letting the screen door bang shut behind him. Idiot. “Who do ya think it is?”

His dad, Ben, staggered into the room with his typical attire of worn, blue jean shorts and a seafood restaurant tee. The smell of alcohol lingered in his breath.

Drake parked himself on the tattered, blue couch in the living room and glared with repulsion at his father. “You never came home last night.”

Ben sat down hard on the other end of the couch and rubbed his head.

“You gonna answer me? I just spoke to you.”

“Go away,” Ben slurred. He moaned at the sudden throbbing that rushed to his head.

Glad to see you too, Drake thought. “You spent your entire check on booze and joints again, didn’t you?”

Ben rolled his eyes. Why so much talking? He didn’t ask for a conversation. “Whadda you care how I spend my money?”

Drake slapped himself on the knee. “Gah, I knew it! Dad, we need groceries! There’s no more food in the house, and…”

“I don’t need no food,” Ben said tersely, scratching the line of poison ivy embedded on his bulging arm. “I need a high, that’s all I need. Sump’n to take the edge off every now and then.” His eyes were red and vacant as they stared straight ahead at no particular thing.

“Well, it’s gonna kill ya someday, and frankly, I don’t care. If you wanna die, sure, fine, that’s your business. Wonderful. But there’s another member of this house who actually likes to eat. So how much money you got left?”

Ben fanned his shirt and shook his head. “As if you don’t enjoy a little alcohol every now and then. Gimme a break.”

“Oh, oh, OK, I see. Takin’ shots at me now, cause you’re so…so…well, why do ya think I drink? To be like you?”

“I really don’t care.”

“Well, I’ll tell ya why. So I can forget what kind of a life I’m living here, that’s why! That makes perfect sense. Least I have a reason.”

“Always an excuse, isn’t there?”

“’Sides, I can control it,” Drake flared back, ignoring his question. “You don’t see beer running my life. Or ruining it, for that matter.”

Ben belted out a long, grating laugh. The salmon on his shirt rippled with every mocking chuckle. “I’ve heard that one before! Yeah, you control it all right. Enough to keep you up half the night over the toilet barfing your guts up!”

Drake pursed his lips tightly. “Whatever,” he mumbled. “Just answer my question. How much cash did you save for food?”

Ben pulled out his wallet and revealed a five and two one-dollar bills.

“You disgust me,” Drake said coldly, shaking his head. “Guess you didn’t think to pick up the medicine for my allergies either, did ya?”
“At those prices? Even the off-brands are through the roof.”

“Then sacrifice a pack of cigarettes this week and there you go. Man, your priorities are so outta whack.”

Ben glared at him. “Watch your mouth. We may not see eye to eye—”

“You got that part right,” Drake said, just as bold.

“—but I’m still your father, and you have to respect me.”

Now Drake was laughing. “Respect you? I wouldn’t even know where to start! How do you respect someone who wastes his life away on drugs and walks around like a zombie all the time? I’m sorry and maybe that’s just me, but I don’t respect that. I’m ashamed of it.”

Ben stood brusquely. “Now you listen here—”

“No, you listen, Dad! I’m tired of coming back from school every day wonderin’ if you’re either passed out on the couch, over at your stupid married girlfriend’s house, or dead.”

Ben exhaled slowly. “Dead?”

“You’re puttin’ way too much stuff in your body—more drugs than I care to count—and I can’t help but wonder if today’ll be the day you just keel over and die. Or tomorrow. Or the day after that. The worrying never stops, and I don’t think it ever will stop until you stop your addictions first!”

“Oh, listen to the pot calling the kettle black! You smoke too, but you never hear me houndin’ you ’bout that!”

“You’re the one who got me addicted! But least I got sense enough to know eating’s more important! You still haven’t figured that out yet.” Drake stood and paced to the other end of the room to keep from looking at his father.

Ben followed him. “Oh, so smoking’s different for you? It’s called being weak, Drake. Face it.”

Drake whirled. “Yeah, and I guess I inherited it from you.”

“I can do whatever I want to with my life, so stay out of it!”

“You sound like a child. Fine. You say stay outta mine, I’ll stay outta yours. Drink yourself to death. See if I care. But before you do every weekend, remind yourself to at least leave more than seven dollars for your son so he can buy himself some food. Unlike yours, my body can’t survive on just drugs.”

“Sell your truck. It’s what I’ve told you all along.”

“I need it.”

“Learn to hitchhike! You want money, there it is.”

“I’m not sellin’ it.”

“Then quit whining! You’re just as able as I am to get your lazy self out of bed in the morning and work.”
“Oh, and I look forward to it,” Drake seethed. “I’m gonna find me a job somewhere so I can make my own money and leave this dump for good. It’s time I leave your Stone Age and start livin’ like everybody else.”

“Like everybody else,” his dad repeated, letting out another throaty laugh. “You really think that a no-account like you can ever climb up the ladder and be like everybody else? Have you looked in the mirror, Drake? You ain’t goin’ nowhere—not because I ain’t lettin’ ya, but because you can’t raise enough money to leave. You’re trash, just like me. Everyone knows it. You’re branded with my name and you’re stuck with it for life. Nothing good’s ever happened to the Pearsons and it sure ain’t gonna start with you.”

Drake stared into the distance. “I’ll show you. Tomorrow, I’m coming back with a job, and then you’ll wish you hadn’t said anything after seeing my first paycheck.”

His dad cackled louder, “We’ll see.”